Black Gondolier and Other Stories

BOOK: Black Gondolier and Other Stories
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The Black Gondolier & Other Stories

Fritz Leiber

Edited by John Pelan & Steve Savile

CONTENTS

Portrait of Fritz Leiber by Allen Koszowski (frontispiece)

Introduction: Fritz & Me by John Pelan

The Black Gondolier

The Dreams of Albert Moreland

Game for Motel Room

The Phantom Slayer

Lie Still, Snow White

Mr. Bauer and the Atoms

In the X-Ray

Spider Mansion

The Secret Songs

The Man Who Made Friends with Electricity

The Dead Man

The Thirteenth Step

The Repair People

Black Has Its Charms

Schizo Jimmie

The Creature from Cleveland Depths

The Casket-Demon

Dr. Adams' Garden of Evil

Afterword: Steve Savile

Fritz and Mee

If you ask any long-time aficionado of fantastic literature to name his favorite authors, the fan of science fiction will likely name Fritz Leiber somewhere in his top five. So too, will the devotee of sword and sorcery mention the wonderful tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as among the very best that the genre has to offer. There have been many excellent writers of fantasy over the years, many excellent writers of science fiction, and many fine writers of horror stories. Arguably, the very best of them all was Fritz Leiber.

Leiber was the author that showed us what sword and sorcery fiction can and should be with his Lankhmar stories that spanned nearly fifty years. In the realm of science fiction, his Change War saga has stood the test of time and remains a classic in the genre. As far as horror fiction, most readers will place
Our Lady of Darkness
and
Conjure Wife
at or near the top of any list of great novels in the field. Then of course we have the socio-political satire of
A Specter is Haunting Texas
and the classic
X-files-
like paranoia of
You're All Alone
, written years before Chris Carpenter was a twinkle in his father's eye.

I'm afraid that I won't be able to fill this introduction with many personal anecdotes, I met the author on only a few occasions and our conversations often revolved around the malady of alcoholism and it's peculiar affinity for the creative sort. A subject that holds considerable fascination for those for whom it's a life or death issue, but to the average person it's a rather dull topic. I do treasure the fact that I was able to meet and chat with the man whose influence on my own reading and writing was so profound.

Like many of us who came on their first genre fiction at an early age in the sixties, I'd quickly discovered the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard; I was quite impressed, but when I stumbled on a book entitled
Swords Against Deviltry
, I was transported… This was what I'd been looking for! I quickly used my meager allowance

money to snap up every book that I could find that had the magical name of Leiber on it. This included some terrific science fiction, the novel
Gather, Darkness,
and finally a handful of anthologies where I discovered "Smoke Ghost", "The Dreams of Albert Moreland", and "Spider Mansion" for the first time.

Over the years I managed to accumulate as close to a complete collection of Leiber's work as you're likely to find. And for years I assumed that all his work was readily attainable, if not perpetually in print.

The book that you hold in your hands is a result of a curious serendipity, that there is no author living or dead that I would be more honored to pen an introduction about than Fritz Leiber goes without saying. That I would've thought this to be an unlikely occurrence is an understatement. After all, Leiber belongs to that pantheon of great writers that have shaped and molded the field of fantastic literature in the latter half of the twentieth century and the works of such individuals are perpetually kept in-print and readily accessible by one and all. Aren't they?

Apparently the answer to that question is in the negative. When Steve Savile first approached me to verify the appearances of several Leiber stories in conjunction with a chapbook that he was preparing for the British Fantasy Society I was amazed at just how much material was no longer available to modern readers. A few e-mails later and we were busily at work preparing two volumes that would bring the "lost Leiber" stories back into print. Even with the space of two volumes to work with it's been impossible to include everything that we would have liked to. We've chosen to focus on those stories that most modern readers would have the most difficult time locating with a couple of familiar tales included. Some stories we considered far too significant to be excluded and you will see some of these familiar tales interspersed in these two volumes. For the most part, our focus has been to restore to print the most significant of Leiber's weird tales that have been unavailable for twenty or more years.

The first thing that became apparent to me as we assembled this collection was just how early in his career Leiber had established himself as a master of the weird tale. While he did write a few stories that could be considered standard fare for the pulps, (such as "Spider Mansion" with its weird-menace excesses) as an example. From the very start his stories took on a modern attitude quite unlike that of his contemporaries in
Weird Tales
, who were busily scrambling to pen stories of improbably-named cosmic monstrosities and babbling aliens in a misguided homage to H.P. Lovecraft…

While Leiber's earliest stories can be classified as updates of the tropes of earlier horror fiction, there is a decided modernity about them. A primary concern is that of the science fiction writer concerned about technologies gone horribly awry. In the early story "Spider Mansion", for all its classic gothic trappings it is at its core a tale of medical experiments gone wrong. The same can be said of the much later (1950) tale "The Dead Man" In both cases, it's not the
science
that is at fault for the dire consequences, but rather the fallible human element that manages to muck things up badly.

Both of these stories foreshadow Leiber's later work where he fuses the concerns of the twentieth century with the mold of the classic weird tale of decades past. In "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" he considers the "vampirism" of advertising as a quite literal reality. In "The Black Gondolier", "The Man Who Made Friends with Electricity", and "Mr. Bauer and the Atoms" present our modern forms of energy in a new and terrifying light. Leiber's "mad" scientists are not mad in the sense of the old villains from the old Universal films from the 1930's, but rather they are often as not blinded by an arrogance and absolute certainty in their own wisdom that they fall afoul of their own inventions and concepts. In fact it could be said of Leiber that among his contemporaries only Philip K. Dick was his equal at writing science fiction that was truly horrifying.

The theme of humanity as but a bit player in the cosmic drama was an idea that Leiber often made use of in ways far more inventive than that of many of his contemporaries. Whereas H.P. Lovecraft took this idea in one direction, Leiber made the concept of an unknowable and hostile cosmos far more personal in stories such as "The Dreams of Albert Moreland". In this story a chess master is drawn into a game with frighteningly high stakes against an opponent reminiscent of one of Lovecraft's Great Old Ones. (Cthulhu as a galactic gamesmaster)? Not exactly, though in the hands of a lesser writer the story could easily have become that ludicrous. In Leiber's hands it's more about the all-consuming nature of the obsessive and the danger of actually getting what we want. Albert Moreland wants a suitable opponent to test his skill on and he gets exactly that.

Leiber's correspondence with Lovecraft is interesting in that of all of Lovecraft's correspondents only Leiber seemed immune to the desire to begin banging out slavish pastiches of the mythos created by the elder writer. In fact, it may well be that Leiber's correspondence led him to an early realization that the horrors of the past were just that, the past and would need a new and vital approach in the latter half of the century. It was not until considerably after Lovecraft's death that Leiber penned an actual mythos story. In this area as in other sub-genres, he excelled and his "The Terror from the Depths" is perhaps the standout piece in Edward Berglund's watershed anthology
Disciples of Cthulhu
.

Taken as a whole, this book chronicles Leiber's remarkable achievements in weird fiction, stories that are thoroughly modern examples of the horror story, tales such as "The Thirteenth Step" which uses the unlikely device of a speaker's "qualification" talk at an AA meeting to tales such as "Lie Still, Snow White", a masterpiece of erotic horror written years before the term had degenerated into a marketing label. There's a variety and richness here that could only have come from an author as gifted as Fritz Leiber.

John Pelan

Midnight House, 2000

THE BLACK GONDOLIER

Daloway lived alone in a broken-down trailer beside an oil well on the bank of a canal in Venice near the café La Gondola Negra on the Grand Canal not five blocks from St. Mark's Plaza.

I mean, he lived there until after the fashion of intellectual lone wolves he got the wander-urge and took himself off, abruptly and irresponsibly, to parts unknown. That is the theory of the police, who refuse to take seriously my story of Daloway's strange dreads and my hints at the weird world-spanning power which was menacing him. The police even make light of the very material clues which I pointed out to them.

Or else Daloway was taken off, grimly and against his will, to parts utterly unknown and blackly horrible. That is my own theory, especially on lonely nights when I remember the dreams he told me of the Black Gondolier.

Of course the canal is a rather small one, showing much of its rough gravel bottom strewn with rusted cans and blackened paper, except when it is briefly filled by one of our big winter rains. But gondolas did travel it in the illusion-packed old days and it is still spanned by a little sharply humped concrete bridge wide enough for only one car. I used to cross that bridge coming to visit Daloway and I remember how I'd slow down and tap my horn to warn a possible car coming the other way, and the momentary roller-coaster illusion I'd get as my car heaved to the top and poised there and then hurtled down the opposite dusty slope for all of a breathless second. From the top of the little bridge I'd get my first glimpse of the crowded bungalows and Daloway's weed-footed trailer and close behind it the black hunch-shouldered oil well which figured so strangely in his dreads. “
Their
closest listening post,” he sometimes called it during the final week, when he felt positively besieged.

And of course the Grand Canal is pretty dismal these days, with its several gracefully arching Bridges of Sighs raddled with holes showing their cement-shell construction and blocked off at either end by heavy wire barricades to keep off small boys, and with both its banks lined with oil wells, some still with their towering derricks and some—mostly those next to beach side houses—with their derricks dismantled , but all of them wearily pumping twenty-four hours a day with a soft slow syncopated thumping that the residents don't hear for its monotony, interminably sucking up the black petroleum that underlies Venice, lazily ducking and lifting their angularly oval metal heads like so many iron dinosaurs or donkeys forever drinking—donkeys moving in the somnambulistic rhythm of Ferde Grofe's Grand-Canyon donkey when it does its sleepy
hee . . . haw.
Daloway had a very weird theory about that—about the crude oil, I mean—a theory which became the core of his dreads and which for all its utter black wildness may still best explain his disappearance.

And La Gondola Negra is only a beatnik coffee house, successor to the fabulous Gashouse, though it did boast a rather interesting dirty drunken guitarist, whose face always had blacker smears on it than those of his stubbly beard and who wore a sweatshirt that looked like the working garment of a coal miner and whom Daloway and I would hear trailing off (I won't venture to say home) in the small hours of the morning, picking out on his twangy instrument his dinky “Texas Oilman Suite”, which he'd composed very much in imitation of Ferde Grofe's one about the Grand Canyon, or raucously wailing his eerie beatnik ballad of the Black Gondola. He got very much on Daloway's nerves, especially towards the end, though I was rather amused by him and at the same time saw no harm in his caterwauling, except to would-be sleepers. Well, he's gone now, like Daloway, though not by the same route . . . I think. At least Daloway never suggested that the guitarist was one of
their
agents. No, as it turned out,
their
agent was a rather more formidable figure.

BOOK: Black Gondolier and Other Stories
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